What Is a Plot? Why Good Writers Need to Know the Answer to This Question

What is a plot? This guide will explore plots and plot elements so you can create more compelling fiction writing.

When writing fiction, the plot is one of the most important parts of the story. It drives the action of the tale and helps you cover the sequence of events in a logical way as you take your main character toward the happy ending or tragic demise you have planned.

But what is a plot, exactly? Is it simply the series of events that happen, or something deeper?

This guide will explore what a plot is and how you use a plot in your writing to make the story work.

What is a Plot? It's More Than You Think

What is a plot?

Merriam-Webster defines plot as: “The plan or main story of a movie or literary work.” In other words, if the characters are the “who” of the story and the theme is the “why,” then the plot tells the “what.”

Plots are not just a bunch of incidents linked together. A plot requires a plot structure, which is a connection between the plot points and the vents in the storyline. You must see cause and effect, for instance:

  • An orphan finds a new family and travels the world

Is not a good example of a plot. It has no cause and effect. However:

  • Because of his grief over the death of his parents, an orphan embarks on an expedition that leads him to a new family and world travel.

This is a good plot example because it has a cause (grief) and an effect (new family and travel).

The Basic Plot Structure

At the heart of a basic plot is its structure. Even in a short story, you can have a clearly defined outline with a beginning, middle and end. However, a refined story will have slightly more parts to its structure.

German novelist Gustav Freytag created a five-stage plot architecture that many novelists follow. This structure, often called Freytag's pyramid, includes:

  • Exposition: The exposition introduces the cast of characters and sets the stage for the conflict or plot driver at the beginning of the story.
  • Rising Action: Early on, a series of events and an inciting incident will create a conflict that sets the stage for the story to unfold.
  • Climax: The point of the story where the build-up occurs, often ending with the turning point.
  • Falling Action: Here the subplots get resolved as the story moves from its exciting climax to its resolution and end.
  • Denouement: The end of the story that wraps up the major events and ties up any loose ends.

5 Examples of Plot in Classic Stories

To better understand a plot, consider some classic types of plots that are common in creative writing, and the stories that use them.

Rags to Riches

A rags to riches tale tells of someone who is poor and rises above their circumstances to gain great wealth or riches. The main plot line is the exploration of just how the protagonist did this.

Cinderella is a classic example of this story structure. The unwanted stepchild rises above her station, with the help of a little magic, to become the beloved princess of the kingdom. 

Other examples of rags to riches tales include:

Overcoming the Monster

In this plot, a protagonist must overcome some sort of threat. The threat can be personal to the main character or something bigger than themselves, bringing potential danger to the entire community or world. 

In Jurassic Park, for example, the rampaging dinosaurs threaten all human life on the island, while in “Little Red Riding Hood” the threat is more personal as the Big Bad Wolf threatens a cute little girl. Sometimes the monster is society itself, as in the Hunger Games.

Either way, the main characters in these stories work to slay the beast, and the danger the beast creates is the main conflict that drives the plot of a story. Other examples of this type of plot include:

Epic Quest

Many stories expound on an epic quest that the characters must undertake to reach a goal. Typically, these stories send a character in search of something, whether it be treasure or another character. 

In literature, the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a classic example of a quest plot. The main characters undertake a journey to destroy the One Ring of Sauron and destroy peace to Middle-earth. 

Other examples of epic quests include:

Story of Rebirth

Not all stories have a clear villain or journey that drives the plot. Sometimes the main plot is simply the redemption story of the main character, and this type of plot is known as rebirth.

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dicken's classic short story, is the perfect example of this. In the story, Scrooge transforms from a stingy miser to a generous benefactor as he is forced to view his own stories through the eyes of another.

Other examples of rebirth stories include:

Voyage and Return Stories

This type of plot is similar to an epic quest but slightly different. In this story, the main character wraps up the action not by finding the treasure, but by returning home. The story is driven by the journey, but the resolution is the return home.

Chronicles of Narnia tend to follow this plot structure. In each story, the children enter the magical world of Narnia, and they must complete their journey before they return home, often decades after they first enter the wardrobe.

Other examples of stories that follow this structure include:

How to Create a Plot

Now that you understand what a plot is, how can you create one for your own stories? To ensure that your plot has all the necessary plot elements to create a compelling story and get the reader's interest, you will need to do some planning. Here's how.

Step 1. Get the Big Picture

Before writing the outline, get an idea of the big picture of your plot. This means identifying the major events and the start, climax, and end before doing any outlining or writing. 

Once these big picture plot points are in place, you can start outlining and writing your story. 

Step 2. Invest the Reader in the Story

Once you know what the basic parts of the story will be, you need to get your reader invested. The reader needs a reason to care about the actions of the characters. Something has to be at stake, whether it is pending doom for the community or a very engaging and compelling character that the reader wants to see succeed.

Step 3. Get to Know Your Character's Motivations

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before.”

Ray Bradbury

What does this mean? It means that the motivations of the characters drive the plot of the story. Take some time to get to know the why and the what behind your characters before delving into the plot.

As you get to know your characters, give them a flaw. No one is perfect, and the flaw in your character can become an important part of the plot. In fact, that character flaw can actually be part of the story's conflict. 

Step 4. Create Causality

Remember that a good plot has a cause and effect. It is more than just a recounting of the steps of the story. It somehow connects something in the character or the character's journey to the intended outcome.

Causality helps keep the plot structure intact and makes the store more than just a sequence of events from start to finish. It makes the reader invested in the outcome, and that creates a more compelling work of fiction.

Step 5. Adjust the Plot to the Characters

Once you know your characters, keep their character qualities in mind at all times. When your plot and the characters don't align, adjust the plot, not the character.

This consistency will help keep your writing logical and engaging. Never force the plot if it is not working, because a plot line is fluid and can change as your story unfolds.

The Final Word on What Is a Plot

So what is a plot? A plot is the main structure of a story. It has a clearly defined beginning, middle and end, with a climax and resolution built-in. 

The plot ensures that every important element of the story is in place to make sense to the reader and keep the story moving. It also contains the conflict or problem that the main characters must tackle in order to reach their happy ending. Every compelling story, even a short story, will have a plot.

If you are going to be a strong writer, you must understand the plot. By having a plot with all of its elements, you will be able to write something people want to read.

FAQs on What Is a Plot

What is a plot of a story?

A plot is the basic structure of a story. It has five main elements, which are:

1. Exposition: The beginning of the story where the reader meets the characters and their problem.
2. Rising Action: The body of the story where the conflict builds toward a climax. 
3. Climax: This is the time when the story's main idea comes to a head and the conflict escalates.  
4. Falling Action: This is the series of events that draw the story to its conclusion.
5. Denouement: This is the conclusion of the story.

What is a plot diagram?

A plot diagram represents the plot of the story in graph form. For most plots, the graph has a gradual curve from the beginning to the climax, then a sharp descent from the climax to the conclusion.

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